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Genius in a Box

Eyewitness: Harry Bliss


It’s difficult to tell when cartoonist Harry Bliss is kidding. His artist’s statement, which currently hangs in Burlington’s Amy E. Tarrant Gallery as part of his exhibit “Genius,” is clearly tongue in cheek: “The show is a testament to the brilliance that is Harry Bliss … this collection should not only visually entertain those who are fortunate enough to view it, but also physically enhance their sexual stamina, or a full refund will be given … wait, the show is free, forget the refund part.”

But when Bliss calls himself a genius, he’s really not kidding at all.

“I hate people who use the word genius, and I think it’s thrown around way too much,” he says. “But yeah, I think there’s a creative piece to my brain that is genius.”

Fair enough. The South Burlington cartoonist and children’s book illustrator, best known for his internationally syndicated single-panel cartoon “BLISS” — which appears in this paper — and his New Yorker cover art, drops by the gallery one recent morning. He’s 47, but talks with the alternating coolness and excitability of a teenager, especially when the conversation tends toward ice hockey, movies and music.

Jaws is just amazing, on so many levels,” he declares, when asked about his favorite. “Citizen Kane is one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. I cry every time I see it.”

The gallery bills his show as a retrospective, but Bliss says he just picked whatever he already had framed, along with work by members of his artistic family and pieces from his own collection. Those include original art by Maurice Sendak, William Steig and Jack Kirby, and a letter from Andrew Wyeth.

Art has always been central to Bliss’ life. His parents met at the former Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art and started their family in Rochester, N.Y., where his father, graphic designer Jack Bliss, ran an art studio with his brothers. “I basically grew up sitting by the fire, watching my dad paint three or four nights out of the week … listening to Sinatra,” Bliss says.

At 6 years old he was drawing; by 13, typesetting for his dad. Itching to get out of Rochester, Bliss studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and at Syracuse University. He worked nearly every job in the restaurant business until he reached 30, when he could support himself on his art alone.

“I feel like I’m enlightened when it comes to my vision,” Bliss says. “It’s probably the only part of me that’s enlightened.”

Bliss speaks reverently about the artists who have inspired him. He’s that guy in the art museum who crouches next to a painting, inspecting the artist’s technique. “You have to look to the edges,” he explains, to find the painting’s scaffolding, the layer of color the artist put down first. “I’ll spend a lot of time checking a piece out,” he says, “because I want to learn from it.”

Bliss considers himself an expert in oil and watercolor painting, but, as much as he respects technique, the idea is paramount. He gestures to an arresting watercolor he did right out of college, a portrait of an Amish teenager. The boy sits upright in his white shirt and suspenders, clutching a bright-yellow Walkman. It’s a beautiful painting.

“But this is a better piece,” Bliss says, pointing to a New Yorker cover — which never ran; the Atlantic Monthly ended up publishing it. Actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Christopher Guest bought the original art. In it, President Obama stands behind the desk of the Oval Office in silhouette, his back turned to the viewer. The red, white and blue of the American flag are the only colors in the piece. “It’s a better concept, it’s smarter,” Bliss says. “A certain cartoon, with the economy of line that expresses so much with so little … I have so much more respect for that.”

No surprise, considering his chosen medium: the single-panel cartoon. Bliss points to one depicting a man and a woman facing each other at a table. His head is slightly bent in apology; her eyes are impossibly wide; one fat tear rolls down her cheek. Bliss drew the cartoon initially without a caption, then looked for narrative possibilities. He knew it had to include this line: “I swear that’s all that happened.”

After some thought, he settled on this: “And the next thing I knew, I was kissing her, and two of her friends, I think one was a dude, then we all did Ecstacy, rented a limo, and went to Vegas — but I swear that’s all that happened.”

So, what’s next for the genius? Bliss says he wants to move to Costa Rica and do nothing. “I just want to read and go for walks,” he says. “I don’t have the energy anymore. I just want to stop [drawing] and sit and read.”

It’s not convincing; Bliss’ ideas keep coming. “The Keith Richards autobiography is hilarious; he’s like a superhero,” he says. “That would be a funny cartoon: Keith Richards as a superhero. I wonder if anyone’s done that. You can’t kill him, even with the strongest heroin.”